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Renovation gives old metropolitan districts a creative new dynamism

A new face is emerging in the central districts of many metropolitan areas from coast to coast.

Old weather-beaten commercial buildings are being recycled and adapted for completely different uses than those for which they were built. Old homes are being spruced up and converted into modern living units. After massive renovations, entire districts in many cases are being transformed into dynamic and popular commercial centers.

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While the trend of rehabilitating and rejuvenating old homes and commercial buildings has been growing for years, it was given a boost with the implementation of the Economic Recovery Tax Act this year.

Provisions of the act have created new tax incentives that are accelerating the renovation and modernization of older properties.

Some of these projects reflect a keen sense of imagination and creativity. For example, a historic firehouse in an old, but still appealing, section of a metropolitan area was converted into a unique and highly atmospheric restaurant. The central point of interest is the shiny metal pole that extends from the floor upward through an opening in the ceiling and into the second-floor room above.

In another metropolitan area, a once weather-beaten mansion is being completely rehabilitated to become a stately ''international house'' - to provide board-and-room lodging exclusively for foreign guests.

Here are some other examples of recycling projects:

An old YMCA building is converted into a complex of condominium units, complete with swimming pool, sauna, and recreational room. A seedy warehouse is converted to sharp-looking condominium units. A large old residence near a university campus is recycled into comfortable rental units for students.

Unique restaurants and boutiques, often decorated on a ''theme'' motif, are frequently the result of particularly creative conversion projects. They are being created from old schoolhouses, churches, prisons, railroad stations, gas stations, and, as noted, firehouses.

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Many new apartment and condominium units are now being developed from large old residences that might have fallen victim to a demolition crew a few years ago.

The swing toward rehabilitating and converting older properties in metropolitan areas is primarily the result of three important circumstances:

* Locations of the existing buildings are often more convenient and desirable than the land available for building new structures.

* Conversion costs are lower than building from scratch.

* New tax laws encourage conversion projects for investment properties.

The new US tax laws provide a tax credit of 15 to 20 percent of rehabilitation costs for qualified projects. They also permit greater depreciation deductions due to a shorter write-off period.

The trend is spawning new and fresh faces on previously old and obsolete properties. In some cases, it's turning tired old neighborhoods into vibrant, renewed centers of community activity. Almost forgotten ''pride of ownership'' is being revived.

In some cities, entire districts that were crumbling are being revived and transformed into atmospheric and lively shopping and tourist centers. New life is being injected into what were becoming depressed chunks of central-city real estate.

In Victoria, British Columbia, for example, Bastion Square is being transformed. Miners and sailors were the primary inhabitants of this district during the gold rush years and the whaling and sealing eras of the 19th century. Indeed, many dubious ''business deals'' were settled here, including the auctioning-off of items that had been stolen from ships attacked on the high seas.

The same type of infamous, yet colorful, activity prevailed in Vancouver's Gastown district during the 18th and 19th centuries. The area was named for an interesting character by the name of Gassy Jack Deighton, who started a popular hotel there in 1867.

Both of these districts - Bastion Square and Gastown - declined in popularity , activity, and condition after the turn of the century, and for many years were simply a blighted part of the downtown area. Financially, they became the most depressed areas of their respective cities.

Today, it's a vastly different scene. The districts are among the most popular and active areas in the two cities. By carefully planned renovation, the areas have been transformed from negative blights to key attractions and money-makers.

Shops and restaurants bristle with activity. A variety of boutiques, antique stores, art galleries, craft shops, and native-art stores offer a special kind of appeal not found in any other area of the city.

The success of these renovation projects is seen in the numbers of people walking on the sidewalks and patronizing the shops.

Similar districts are being successfully revived in cities all across Canada and the US. Now, with added incentives built into the new US tax laws, the trend toward more intra-city renovation projects is bound to accelerate in the years ahead.

The bottom-line result of the current wave of recycling is to create a more appealing living environment - not only for the visitors, but for residents as well. From both an economic and aesthetic standpoint, these projects have a positive impact on their communities.

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